As my clients emerged from the global economic turmoil that began in 2008, they indicated they had learned numerous lessons—the most important one: When leaders make good decisions, little else matters. When they refuse to make decisions, or show a pattern of making bad decisions, nothing else matters. As I helped these leaders position themselves for the “new economy,” I began to see what others didn’t see.
Something was standing in their way—usually the unwillingness or inability to demand cohesion and teamwork. In many cases, they thought they needed more—more education, more experience, more time, or more data. They didn’t realize they had enough of these but lacked the confidence, courage, and optimism to disrupt—to grasp “that’s the way we’ve always done things” kind of thinking wouldn’t work anymore.
Through our work together, the most successful leaders realized that to emerge from the economic downturn, they could no longer push growth. Instead, they had to remove barriers to success—usually barriers of their own making. They needed to understand how to eliminate their silo-building behaviors and replace them with silo-busting decisions. Now, more than thirteen years later, they are re-learning some of these same lessons while trying to predict what will come next. However, foretelling outcomes of a pandemic that surprised everyone is fraught with problems.
What do we know for sure about teams, silos, and their potential for impeding recovery and growth?
Research offers overwhelming but surprising evidence that groups of extremely bright and talented individuals often appreciably underperform when compared to groups comprised of average or above-average talent. Too often leaders think they’ve done their jobs by collecting the individual virtuosos. Then they retreat to a safe distance to watch the innovative fireworks. Frequently, however, instead of engendering “ooh’s and ahh’s,” the group—which never formed into a team—causes a hugely expensive dud. Even while in the same room, so-called team members remain in their silos.
Building a team of exceptional people involves appreciating how individual members’ characteristics and personalities unite to form the unique culture of a virtuoso team. Satisfaction, performance, productivity, effectiveness, and turnover depend, to a large degree, on the socio-emotional make-up of the team. But one thing remains constant: Stars commonly think they lose their ability to shine when in a galaxy—their distinctive quality diminishing as others shine beside them. Consistently teams underperform despite all the extra resources—problems with coordination, motivation, and fear of losing control chipping away at the benefits of collaboration. In short, the very people leaders need on a team want to remain solo contributors.
Leaders who aspire to assemble a team of top performers face daunting obstacles if they don’t shape and build the team of these resistant people at the onset. Without structure, a team of stars will flounder unproductively, often concluding that the team’s efforts are a waste of time, at which time the team founders.
These reactions occur when people are face-to-face in the office; they intensify when teams work remotely, as they have done for more than a year. However, when leaders define expectations, impose constraints, and help members clarify norms, roles, and responsibilities, the team can spend its time carrying out its tasks. All doesn’t depend on people getting back to the office, but it can’t help but help.When leaders make good decisions, little else matters. When they refuse to make decisions, or show a pattern of making bad decisions, nothing else matters. Click To Tweet
Leaders find themselves most motivated to spend time on silo busting when the team faces a roadblock, but often that will be too late. A more proactive approach would be to do the building of the team when it’s forming or when things are going well. When leaders disrupt a collection of egos and insist on collaboration, they create a galaxy of stars—a team of virtuosos.
No two teams, not even two teams of stars, look alike. But when they understand the universal dynamics that contribute to successful interactions among exceptional people, leaders can adapt and adjust their communication to the situation and make choices that will benefit the team and the organization. It all starts with trust.
The willingness to be vulnerable—to link one’s own success to another’s—starts with the fundamental belief that members care about each other. They don’t necessarily feel protected or nurtured, but they don’t fear they will be sacrificed on the corporate altar if things go awry either. Virtuosos repeat an internal mantra: “If I sink or swim as a result of your efforts, you’d better be a good swimmer yourself and someone who will throw me a lifeline if I need it.” When that caliber and quantity of trust pervade the team’s interactions, accountability follows.
Conventional approaches to understanding teams usually address the work the team performs—the tasks they accomplish by functioning collectively rather than individually. When leaders create a galaxy of stars, however, the emphasis shifts. They assemble stars when they need bold decisions and stellar analytical reasoning—not all hands on deck. The recovery depends on bold decisions and confident decision-makers who show a willingness to work together to find solutions to problems they have never faced before. Don’t construct silos to keep these stars apart.